Sunday, January 31, 2010

The SOTU "lecture"

Over at Hot Air, King Banaian provides an excellent commentary about one attitude of the political left toward those who fail to agree with their political goals.
The notion that we know enough to know what is in someone else’s best interest is evidence of this fallacy, and I have found over the succeeding decades there are many academics that fall into it. Applied in the political sphere, it takes the form of “why does the public not understand what we are trying to do?” We heard it in President Obama’s State of the Union address last week in his claim that his failure on health care was “not explaining it more clearly to the American people.” It characterizes the thoughts of Thomas Frank in “What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a book that I found alternately patronizing and pathetic, arguing that it must be false consciousness or hypnotizing demagoguery that leads the working class of Kansas, once home of agricultural Wobblies, to now vote consistently conservative.
 I have it via Mark Steyn that Sarah Palin, when asked to summarize the State of the Union speech in one word, pronounced "Lecture."  Good call.  Stop by Hot Air to read the whole post.  It isn't long, and it's well worth the brief time it would take.

The Assault Breacher Vehicle

Brought to us by the United States Marine Corps:
In the 1990s, the U.S. Army decided it could not afford to continue developing such a complicated, maintenance-heavy vehicle. But the Marine Corps persisted -- funding the development and testing from its own discretionary budget funds.

In December, the 42-foot-long assault breacher was used in combat for the first time, as Marines pushed into a Taliban stronghold called Now Zad in Afghanistan's Helmand province. The brass were pleased with its performance.
Do check out the rest of the story, along with the photograph.

The vehicle looks like a tank minus the cannon but with plenty of front-end gear for dealing with mine threats and moving earth.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Blumneconomics XII: Heckuva job, Obama

It figures that Robyn "Blumñata" Blumner would produce an entertaining column following one of the best weeks for Republicans in ages.

The former head of Florida's ACLU has little clue about economics, as abundantly illustrated by the columns she wrote corresponding to "Blumneconomics" posts I-XI.  And since it is more instructive to watch her tie herself in knots rather than hear me simply describe how mixed up she is, take it away, Robyn:
The pro-waterboarding, Tea Party-friendly Brown, a veritable unknown state senator, blew into high federal office in the bluest of blue states by harping on the deficit and promising to defeat health care reform. But the undercurrent of Brown's campaign was the dire economy.
Ah, that dreaded undercurrent.  The term itself cues the reader to the fact that Blumner will have no good evidence from the Brown campaign that he placed any particular emphasis on the state of the economy.
Brown claimed in a piece in the Boston Globe earlier this month that he was running because "more of our people are unemployed today than ever before."
Blumner's columns appear in the print edition of the St. Petersburg Times, so she simply can't provide the conntext of Brown's statement.  The Internet, fortunately, largely frees us from that problem.  Here is the full paragraph:
I’m running because more of our people are unemployed today than ever before. Public debt has reached $12 trillion and counting, and Washington politicians want to borrow trillions more. Terrorists want to strike our country again, and they will do so if we let down our guard. We have fighting forces in two theaters of war, and those men and women need our support.
In literature, any halfway decent writer uses paragraphs to collect related ideas.  And Blumner has to know that.  Yet she eliminates the set of reasons for running intially presented by Brown in favor of the one that supports her thesis.  It was out-of-context cherry-picking, in other words.  What Blumner wrote is technically true, but misleading (PolitFact will get right on it).

Blumner apparently feels she has made her case, so she moves on:

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Supacat and Force Protection vie to supply new UK military vehicle

The armored vehicle wars have given me much less material lately, but a new story from sheds light on my previous military hardware post about the Force Protection Ocelot:
LONDON - Supacat has taken the wraps off its contender to supply British forces fighting in Afghanistan with a new generation of light protected patrol vehicles (LPPVs). The company has delivered the SPV400 to the U.K. Ministry of Defence for trials alongside machines from two other suppliers in hopes of replacing the Snatch Land Rover with a better protected vehicle.
By all appearances, Supacat has adopted the v-shaped hull design to deflect the force of mine blasts.  Speaking of appearances, visit to view pics of the vehicle.

I had wondered what market Force Protection had in mind with the Ocelot.  This story answers that question.

Paul Krugman, expert economist

Stephen Spruiell at NRO's "The Corner" gives us a little set of reminders about Nobel laureate Paul Krugman:
Paul Krugman posts, "A Note On The Economy":
Quite aside from everything else going on, the economic recovery isn’t looking very good. Unemployment claims are stalled at a level that bodes ill for for the overall employment picture (don’t count on falling unemployment until that number falls well below 400,000). And the 10-year bond rate, which is my personal index of the market’s expectations about recovery, has been falling off again after rising for several weeks.
No reason to panic — but it does look as if this recovery is going to be jobless for quite a while.
That's weird. I read somewhere that the stimulus would be having its maximum effect right now.

 Do read it all.  It gets even better.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Obama on independent voting records

The Flip-O-Meter.  Meh.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


"Truth-O-Meter says"?  I thought this was the Flip-O-Meter.  Maybe the Truth-O-Meter speaks for the Flip-O-Meter.

And I suppose Robert Farley writes for the Truth-O-Meter as it speaks for the Flip-O-Meter.  Here's Farley:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thiessen schools Amanpour, Sands on waterboarding (Updated x2)

From CNN (hat tips to Power Line and "Yid with Lid"), in two parts.

Over the last several years I've been fascinated by the equivocation that goes on surrounding the use of the term "waterboarding."  Amanpour defends her comparision of a submersion technique with the CIA enhanced interrogation technique thus: "Excuse me (sir?), that is called 'waterboarding.'"

If I freeze water into a rectangular solid resembling a 2x4 and whack somebody in the head with it and call that "waterboarding," the name does not make it the same as the CIA technique of stimulating the gag reflex to reproduce the sensation of drowning.

Amanpour went to teach Bill O'Reilly a thing or two about shouting down a guest when she insisted waterboarding was "Dipping people's heads in a bucket of water to simulate drowning, period, end of story."

Equivocation isn't cool.


Not long after I first posted on the Thiessen-Amanpour clash, I remembered the disconnect between the Amanpour report cited by Thiessen and the images shown during the video of the debate.  Thiessen described Amanpour calling submersion in a box full of water, as depicted in a Vann Nath painting, a technique used by the United States.  Just below, I provide an image of the type of box in question.  In the background one can see the painting that was Amanpour's topic (Update/Correction:  I heard Thiessen on the radio (Hugh Hewitt Show) this week and his description of the painting was actually closer to one depicting a victim hanging upside-down in a barrel of water.  Find that one as part of the collection here.Also see Update #2, at bottom.

While the exchange about Amanpour's reporting was going on, the following image was shown onscreen:

The latter is, or at least has become, the iconic Vann Nath image.  It is close to the type of waterboarding done by the CIA, though the painting offers no good evidence of an attempt to prevent water from entering the lungs (aspiration).   Update:  A better (bigger) image of the same painting does suggest that the platform is on an incline, albeit an incline magically achieved without any apparent support underneath the wooden platform.

Which brings us to another subject.

The "Why Didn't I Notice That Before?" Department

The second Vann Nath painting apparently shares the room with a Cambodian "water board."

A close examination comparing the painting to the museum piece shows that the devices are remarkably similar.  Perhaps the painting is a representation of the device shown.  But there is one significant difference.  As noted above, the painting shows no apparent evidence of an incline.  The head of the victim, in other words, apparently is not lowered as a protection against aspiration.  But the image above shows a marked incline.  And the right portion of the photograph shows why.  It seems that a single 4x4 keeps one end of the exhibit elevated (look inside the faint yellow circle I added to the photo).  Also note that aside from the helpful 4x4 the device seems designed to sit level.  It has feet at the head and a wider set of short feet at the foot end.

How do we explain the discrepancy between the painting and the museum exhibit?  Possibly the Khmer Rouge used water torture with and without an incline using the same or a similar device.  Possibly the museum placed the 4x4 to enable visitors to better view the exhibit.  Least likely, we should hope, is that the photographer had the piece repositioned to help emphasize the similarity of the Khmer Rouge to the CIA.

I located another photograph that helps confirm that the museum piece is normally displayed on an incline (making the conspiracy option even less likely), and the image also suggests that more than one 4x4 supports the end near the paintings.

Update #2:

Amid some doubt as to whether either Thiessen or I correctly identified the painting Amanpour spoke of, I decided to post portion the earlier CNN transcript that Thiessen quoted back to Amanpour, but with a bit more of the surrounding context included:
Take water torture, for instance. Van Nath remembers it as if it were yesterday. I gasped as I entered a room filled with his vivid depictions.

One of his paintings shows a prisoner blindfolded and hoisted onto a makeshift scaffold by two guards. He is then lowered head first into a massive barrel of water. Another shows a prisoner with cloth over his face, writhing as an interrogator pours water over his head.

Van Nath still remembers the accompanying screams: "It sounded like when we are really in pain, choking in water," he told me. "The sound was screaming, from the throat. I suppose they could not bear the torture.

"Whenever we heard the noises we were really shocked and scared. We thought one day they will do the same thing to us."

As he talked and showed me around, my mind raced to the debate in the United States over this same tactic used on its prisoners nearly 40 years later. I stared blankly at another of Van Nath's paintings. This time a prisoner is submerged in a life-size box full of water, handcuffed to the side so he cannot escape or raise his head to breathe. His interrogators, arrayed around him, are demanding information.

I asked Van Nath whether he had heard this was once used on America's terrorist suspects. He nodded his head. "It's not right," he said.

But I pressed him: Is it torture? "Yes," he said quietly, "it is severe torture. We could try it and see how we would react if we are choking under water for just two minutes. It is very serious."

Is it serious to falsely portray what the United States did to detainees? Yes, it is very serious.

1/21/2009:  Edited the post to significantly reduce the number of times "significantly" occurs.

Grading PolitiFact: Donna Brazile and Obama approval

Meh.  They're doing it all wrong.  Fact checking, that is.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Catharine Richert:  writer, researcher
Greg Joyce:  editor


The headline and deck make this issue appear deceptively simple.  But as PolitiFact notes from time to time, many statements come with an implicit underlying argument.  But don't expect PolitiFact to find one of those this time out.

Grading PolitiFact: Newt Gingrich and Interpol

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Kevin Robillard:  writer, researcher
Greg Joyce:  editor


Do we need additional evidence that PolitiFact routinely disregards standards for objective reporting?  Have a look at Robillard's first two paragraphs:
Conservatives have long feared that America is losing its sovereignty to international organizations, dating back to the John Birch Society issuing warnings about "one world government" in the 1950s.

And perhaps nothing evokes this fear more than the possibility of an international police or military force with power over American citizens. A recent executive order signed by President Barack Obama dealing with the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, has reignited those fears.
Robillard is not reporting.  He has presented an argument, an argumentum ad hominem (argument to the person), suggesting that his subject is motivated by fear.  It is the stuff of editorial journalism.  I checked for any conspicuous sign from PolitiFact that might, for the reader's sake, distinguish Robillard's piece from objective journalism.  I failed to find one.

Now that we are suitably primed with the expectation that Newt Gingrich will offer his statement out of fear,

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A new reset button

The Obama administration presented the Russians with a "reset button" to denote departure from the diplomacy of the previous administration.

On Tuesday, the people of Massachusetts gave President Obama a reset button for domestic politics.

Evan Bayh saw it coming:
“The only we are able to govern successfully in this country is by liberals and progressives making common cause with independents and moderates,” Bayh said.  “Whenever you have just the furthest left elements of the Dem party attempting to impose their will on the rest of the country -- that’s not going to work too well.”
In point of fact, beginning with the Porkulus package, Congress has been run by a liberal faction of the Democratic Party.  That faction pushed its agenda with Gingrich-style party discipline and "Let's Make a Deal!" persuasion for those not part of the camp.

The reset button dictates that Obama and the Democrats will need to build broader coalitions of support for their agenda.  That means either better bribes or a more centrist direction--hopefully the latter.  The 2012 elections portend another significant reset.

Journalists and political leaning: Divulge the secret?

Howard Kurtz wrote on one of my pet subjects.  Go, Howard.

It's about time that most mainstream journalists admitted they are Democrats.
That argument comes not from some rabid right-winger but from Mika Brzezinski, the co-host of "Morning Joe" and the daughter of Jimmy Carter's national security adviser.
I may have been the rabid right-winger.  But let's hear Kurtz explain Brzezinski's view:
In an interview with WNBC's Julie Menin, Brzezinski, who's promoting her book "All Things At Once," says it's time to "stop pretending. . . . Every journalist should tell us what their political affiliation is," and which candidates they have voted for.
Denizens of the MSM try to be objective, she says, but have "got a liberal point of view. The balance is not there." Otherwise, viewers can be "duped."
Or readers.  I think of the folks who take PolitiFact fact checks as gospel, unaware of the institutional bias that colors them.  She has a point.  Kurtz, on the other hand, has reservations:
I have a bit more confidence than Mika in the ability of many (but not all) of my colleagues to keep their opinions out of their work. And her argument that this lack of transparency has fueled the extreme movements on both sides isn't terribly persuasive. ("That's why we have Fox," she says. And MSNBC prime time?)
Kurtz tends to write excellent content, but there is no way to totally eliminate bias in reporting.  The best reporters, in terms of objectivity, have the least bias in their work.  But reporters who include a substantial and noticeable degree of bias are common.  It comes out in the choice of content and in the choice of words.  I would emphasize that it is irrelevant whether some or even many reporters can write so that their bias is virtually undetectable.  That isn't a reason to keep political leanings a secret.  It is a rationalization substituted for the real reason the political affiliation of reporters is either secret or even discouraged by their employers:  It is thought to affect the bottom line.  Yes, that's right.  Money.

Objective journalism grew out of two cultural phenomena.  One was the scientific revolution.  We tried applying science to everything--and why not news reporting?  Before the 20th century, news was partisan, and newpapers were often financed by political parties.  But the practice of objective journalism afforded the opportunity to sell newspapers to audiences from more than one party.  Thus, adopting the objective news format could increase circulation and ad sales.

The world has changed since those times.

The imprint of Modernity has faded a bit.  We no longer view science as the be-all and end-all.  Postmodernism grew up through cracks in the pavement and flourished.  In American politics, polarization has increased radically.  Roger Ailes detected the changes in the market and Fox News was born.  Did polarization lead to Fox or is Fox a primary cause of polarization?  An argument might be made for either, but my money is on the former.

With all these changes, the rationale for keeping political affiliations a secret has eroded.  Sticking to the objective paradigm probably does not help newspapers sell in the current polarized climate.  And people are too jaded to expect a scientific outlook in the journalism they consume.

To top it off, divulging political affiliation dovetails with the mission of journalism:  Informing the public.  Newspapers tell secrets all the time.  This secret is not that special and, as Brzezinski points out, it can ultimately harm the journalistic enterprise.

 Mika's right, Howard.

Coakley concedes to Brown in Massachusetts Senate race: What does it mean for Obama?

Knowing a tiny bit about political science plus a wee bit of history, I tried my hand last January at evaluating President Obama's prospects based on his early agenda.  The president's push for health care reform had not yet occurred, but I can still claim to have done fairly well with relatively broad predictions.  I forecast that Obama's two initial priorities, economic stimulus and the closure of the Gitmo detention facility, carried substantial political risk:
Obama moved center with his proposal for economic stimulus. That was a good move. Unfortunately for the president, the Democrats in Congress have been less inclined to move center and the resulting bill (from the House, anyway) is much more partisan in character than the one Obama recommended. If the Senate increases the tax cut percentage reasonably close to his original proposal then a bipartisan bill may yet emerge. Obama gets a boost from that. Alternatively, the budget fight will help polarize conditions in the capital. The resulting bill will represent only the Democrats, and its relative lack of stimulative effect may come back to bite the party of the left.
I love it when circumstances occur that make it look like I know what I'm talking about.

My evaluation of the other issue panned out fairly well, also, if I can claim Eric Holder's decision to try some foreign terrorists in civil courts, along with Obama's other related judicial problems with terrorists, within its bounds:
Obama decided to bite the bullet and commit to closing Gitmo. The move is a sop to his base but a difficult one to pull off to the satisfaction of the electorate generally. In recognition of the difficulty, Obama fashioned his strategy by putting the resolution of the issue on a year-long timetable without any initial details.

As noted above, making this a key early issue carries substantial risk in terms of exercising his political power over time.
With the election of Scott Brown to the Senate, the political game in Washington changes.  Where Obama formerly could let liberal Democrats in Congress fashion and pass legislation agreeable to him, he will now be forced to seek a slightly broader coalition while enduring a rebuke of his policy course.

Obama might have averted the current problem if he had taken his own campaign rhetoric more seriously.  A more centrist stimulus bill with fewer pet projects stuffed inside would have diminished the GOP position as a clear alternative and, perhaps more importantly, jibed with the campaign rhetoric that so many independent voters found appealing.

Byron York had it right with regard to Brown's win in Massachusetts.  Independents and many Democrats do not like the health care reform bill, and neither do they like the way they see business conducted in  Washington.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

PolitiFact opts for neutrality in Brown-Coakley race

PolitiFact nearly weighed in on the claims coming from the Massachusetts special election coming later today.

But rather than challenging any of Martha Coakley's dubious claims, including one parroted by President Obama during his campaign appearance on Coakley's behalf, PolitiFact opted to give Obama a flip-flop rating on its "Flip-O-Meter."

At least the "Truth-O-Meter" has some competition in the dopey-names-for-rating-graphic category.

The layout of the PolitiFact page (this will change with time, hence the partial screen capture) will surely draw the attention of those interested in the Brown-Coakley race:

Pardon my sarcasm above.  Not much to enable the reader to connect this rating to the special election, is there?  And the treatment of the Coakley campaign's claims about Brown's voting record showed PolitiFact's reluctance to let their ratings mar Coakley's chances in the election:
In September, the Coakley campaign commissioned an analysis of Brown's voting record from Insta Trac, a nonpartisan Massachusetts legislative bill tracking service. As the Coakley campaign has hammered often, the firm found that since 2007, Brown has voted with the Republican Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei 96 percent of the time. But Brown has been in the Massachusetts Senate since 2004, and he voted with Tisei's predecessor, Brian Lees, 82 percent of the time. We verified those numbers with Insta Trac president Michael Segal.

Also, Brown served for six years in the Massachusetts House, and according to Insta Trac statistics, he voted with Republican leadership there about 92 percent of the time. We tallied all of Brown's votes in the state House and Senate (3,104 votes in all) and confirmed the Coakley campaign's claim that he has voted with Republican leadership 90 percent of the time as a state legislator. We think that probably would be a fairer number for Obama to cite, unless he qualified that he was just talking about Brown's voting record over the past two years.

But our aim here is not to quibble with Obama's number. Rather it's that Obama was citing these voting records to dispel Brown's claims of independence.
Coakley not only cherry-picked the numbers, but allowed her campaign to cook them.  And though PolitiFact keeps Coakley out of trouble by careful omission, her campaign used the numbers to make the same claim Obama made about Brown's independence:
BOSTON – Scott Brown has touted himself as an “independent voter” throughout this campaign, but a review of his votes during his career as a state legislator demonstrates that he has actually been a lockstep, robotic Republican vote.
I like how Coakley's people provide a dateline location ("BOSTON") while showing nary a clue about AP style, by the way.  Nice touch!  Makes it look like news!

Though PolitiFact cites the page I quoted from, they never connect Obama's flawed argument to Coakley.

Watch for an evaluation of this PolitiFact item later in the week.

1/19/10:  Added some helpful URLs.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fact check in order for President Obama, Martha Coakley campaign Web site (Updated)

In the Massachusetts special election for the Senate, Democratic candidate Martha Coakley has portrayed Scott Brown as a Republican "in lock step" with the Republican Party.

President Obama, during his remarks supporting Coakley at a campaign appearance yesterday, repeated the Coakley charge:
So I hear her opponent is calling himself an independent. Well, you've got to look under the hood -- (laughter) -- because what you learn makes you wonder. Now, as a legislator, he voted with the Republicans 96 percent of the time -- 96 percent of the time. It's hard to suggest that he's going to be significantly independent from the Republican agenda. When you listen closely to what he's been saying, it's very clear that he's going to do exactly the same thing in Washington.
(Chicago Sun-Times, yellow highlights added)
Scott Brown allegedly votes with "Republicans" 96 percent of the time.  Is it true?

Martha Coakley's Web site provided additional detail on a page called "Rhetoric vs. Reality":

Brown On lockstep Republican Voting Record


Brown:  The allegation that I vote 96 percent of the time with Republicans is inaccurate." (Boston Globe, 1/14/10)


Brown has voted with the Minority Leader of the Massachusetts Senate, Richard Tisei, 546 times from 2007-present.  During that same period Brown voted against the Minority Leader only 25 times.  In other words, Brown has voted with the current Republican Minority Leader 96% of the time from 2007-present [Insta-Trac/The Advance Research Group Database]
(Web site style faithfully reproduced)
Two questions ought to immediately occur to the would-be fact checker.  First, why or how does Richard Tisei represent "Republicans"?  Second, given the potential for votes that are neither "yea" nor "nay," does the math add up?

Was Tisei properly representative of "Republicans"?

Insta-Trac's description of its service offers some insight into the choice of Tisei:

  • See a legislator’s votes on all law enforcement votes
  • Or a sub-set of the law enforcement cluster, such as a member’s votes just on guns and weapons
  • How one legislator voted with or against one or more other legislators
  • The missed votes of a legislator
  • How a legislator voted with and/or against the leadership of his/her party

The Coakley campaign, then, had a number of options open when it came to comparing Scott Brown's voting record.  The best way to determine how Brown voted compared to "Republicans" would have involved using the third option listed above.  Take all the Republican votes on a given issue, and determine whether Brown voted with or against the majority of Republicans.

The Coakley campaign conspicuously avoided using that method.  They did produce a comparison of Brown's votes compared with "the leadership of his/her party," however, finding that Brown voted with the leadership 90 percent of the time over the course of his career in state government.

These numbers produce many questions about the methods used by the Coakley campaign.  Why use the Tisei comparison if one to Republican leaders as a group was available?  And why not do the comparison as it should have been done?

Do the numbers add up?

Another page at Coakley's Web site offers an entirely different set of figures for the same comparison even though the two sets were published less than week apart.  The numbers quoted above result in a figure of 95.6 percent, which is fairly rounded up to 96 percent.  From the earlier (Jan. 10) page, however, the figure comes to 94.7 percent.  The latter is not fairly represented as 96 percent.  One set of figures is wrong, at minimum.

I have a request for a free trial of Insta-Trac's service pending.


Will PolitiFact check President Obama's accuracy?  Don't hold your breath.


This story apparently has some legs.

I have tentative evidence that PolitiFact is interested in this story, but from the perspective of fact checking Scott Brown's denial that he voted with Republicans 96 percent of the time.

A note for my readers:  I haven't shown my entire hand on this item.  I have avoided mention of the aspect of the story that I would most expect reporters with a liberal bias to flub.  Don't let me down, PolitiFact!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is the Coakley-Brown race about ObamaCare or not?

The St. Petersburg Times has finally done something substantial to increase its readers' political awareness:  It printed an AP story about the Massachusetts special election that will fill the seat formerly held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (aka "Kennedy's seat").

Because of the AP's hypersensitivity about having its stories quoted by bloggers, please read it at the Times' site.

The story never says anything direct about the special election serving as a referendum on ObamaCare.  But if anyone has the least ability to read between the lines, that thread runs implicitly throughout the story, starting with the headline:  "Mass. Senate race may kill health bill."

The story quotes Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to the effect that a victory by Republican contender Scott Brown win will kill the health care legislation currently on the table.

It quotes the Massachusetts secretary of state, who suggests that if it takes two weeks to certify Brown as the winner then it may provide enough time for Congress to pass the legislation before Brown can affect the outcome.

The story sounded a single note out of tune with that message, reporting Vice President Joe Biden's criticism of Brown for opposing tax hikes on the banking industry.

The content bias is clear, and conveys the editorial message:  The special election is about ObamaCare.

What conclusion do we draw from Brown's "unexpected" strong challenge to Democrat Martha Coakley?  I predict that most left-leaning editorials will make the story about Coakley's failings as a candidate. 

Funny how those aren't on display in the reporting.

Ad: Scott Brown wants to deny rape victims medical care

Greg Sargent's blog at has the details:
This is absolutely brutal: Massachusetts Dems have dropped a mail piece accusing GOP Senate candidate Scott Brown of wanting hospitals to turn away “all” rape victims.
It's a short and interesting story, so pay Sargent's blog a visit and get the whole story.

Amazing stuff, especially placed next to Ed Schultz's recent oral effusion (via Hot Air).

The early Martha Coakley campaign video

Browsing YouTube, I ran across an older video extolling Martha Coakley for Massachusetts senator.

It's an interesting piece of work.  It presents Coakley as "A Different Kind of Leader for Massachusetts."  But at same time, Coakley emphasizes that her service will resemble that of Ted Kennedy.  Coakley also claims that she will not serve as a partisan, and follows that with a laundry list of partisan causes that she intends to support.

Sounds like she's from the "say what you think you need to say to get elected" school.  Damn the contradictions and full speed ahead.

That's different.

Here's to a Scott Brown victory on Tuesday.


"Adding comments has been disabled for this video."

Smart idea.

"Something Wicked This Way Comes"

Barry Popik of Red State offered a timely reminder that PolitiFact is spreading to the great state of Texas.  That means I'll have to revise my description of PolitiFact as "the fact checking arm of the St. Petersburg Times" or the like.

Popik's take is worth quoting:
My local Austin American-Statesman has just added PolitiFact Texas. If this works as well as the one at the St. Petersburg (FL) Times and Barack Obama’s “Fight the Smears,” then in won’t exactly be about the truth. The plan is to make this nation-wide.
It’s sort of a Snope with, unfortunately, a little Media Matters under the hood.
Or, as Popik phrased it while commenting here, "Same biases, different state."

Popik included a few examples of PolitiFactual malfeasance in his Red State post. Thanks for the link, Barry!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Giuliani and the Bush record on homeland terrorist attacks

Last week was a great week for news.  The aftermath of the underwear bomber attack featured great dollops of controversy, as did the machinations surrounding the health care reform bill snaking its way through Congress.

Controversial news cycles tend to produce work for fact checkers.  By himself, President Obama produced the following potential fact checks:
  • "(O)ver the past year, we've taken the fight to al Qaeda and its allies wherever they plot and train, be it in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Yemen and Somalia, or in other countries around the world."
  • "Immediately after the attack, I ordered concrete steps to protect the American people:  new screening and security for all flights, domestic and international; more explosive detection teams at airports; more air marshals on flights; and deepening cooperation with international partners."
  • "Guantanamo prison ... has ... become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda.  In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."
  •  "(T)he Recovery Act included the largest investment in education by the federal government in history while preventing more than 300,000 teachers and school workers from being fired because of state budget shortfalls."
  • "(W)e've sought new beginnings with Muslim communities around the world, one in which we engage on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect, and work together to fulfill the aspirations that all people share -- to get an education, to work with dignity, to live in peace and security."
  • "The Recovery Act has been a major force in breaking the trajectory of this recession and stimulating growth and hiring."
During the week I hear claims like this from various government officials and I pause at times to wonder whether the statements will receive attention from PolitiFact, the fact checking folks at the St. Petersburg Times.

Meanwhile, I read that Rudy Giuliani said during an interview that there had been no terrorist attacks under George W. Bush.  I thought "There is the typical PolitiFact fact check."

And here we are.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Aaron Sharockman:  writer, researcher
Amy Hollyfield:  editor


PolitiFact's objective reporting, here we come!

Econ 101: Moral hazard (and government policy)

Or, "How the government contributed to the financial crisis."

Who is Martha Coakley to St. Petersburg Times readers?

I was poised to post an item with the "Piquing PolitiFact" tag after suggesting a fact for PolitiFact to check.  So far they have taken none of my suggestions, so far as I am aware.  Here is the latest:

(click to enlarge)

With some time elapsed since I posted, I began to wonder what "In the Know" readers of the Times know about Martha Coakley.

The Times search function produced three results for Coakley.

1.  The first, from 2002, was a brief mention of Coakley respecting her former role as district attorney.

2.  On Sept. 28, 2009, E. J. Dionne mentioned Coakley in an op-ed picked up by the Times:
The woman to beat is Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who has the most statewide recognition.
Coakley has received an unexpectedly strong challenge from Republican Scott Brown.  Judging from his op-ed, Dionne didn't see it coming.

3.  The third mention comes hot off the virtual presses, dated Jan. 15, 2010.  A brief blurb about a President Obama digital campaign appearance on behalf of Coakley accompanies the story of the unions cutting a deal to delay implementation of the Cadillace insurance plan tax on (who else?) the unions.  Sounds like the unions learned a little something from Ben Nelson (D, Neb.).  The story in the Times omits the apparent terms of the deal.  The story does mention Scott Brown by name and affirms that Obama lent his support in light of the fact that the race in Massachusetts between Brown and Coakley is "competitive."  No word on why that might be.

In the know.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is "conservative hate speech" redundant?

I haunt a good number of message boards off and on.  I run across quite a few amusing statements.

Delilah Bach unloaded a doozy not long ago over the PolitiFact's FaceBook page:

I'll transcribe it just to make it easier for some folks to read:
"Thank you Politifact for banning Bob, he was really driving me crazy with the conservative point of view. There is no room for that type of speech on this page!

There are a few others that should be censored as well!"

"Bob" was a noisy fellow who posted from a conservative/right wing point of view.  Sometimes he made a good point.  Often he was unnecessarily confrontational.  "Bob" was banned for using a fake identity after rejoining the discussion when his previous fake identity was banned.

I'm a big advocate of favoring a charitable interpretation of an author's work.  Thus I assume that type of speech for which Delilah sees no room was the name calling cited by PolitiFact in a post that implicitly marked Bob's banning.

But if she simply meant that there was no room for the conservative point of view then I may be next!


Another commenter at FaceBook, Karen Street, pointed out that "Delilah Bach" appeared soon after "Bob" was banned, and supposed that the Bach identity was another incarnation of Bob.  A subsequent post by Bach helped firm the impression that the tone of her(?) posts is sarcastic, making it plausible if not probable that Bach is the new Bob.

The upshot is that Bach's comments should not be taken as in any way representative of the left, except via coincidental resemblance.

A pox on sock puppetry.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Scary Nancy Pelosi

Yes, the content is scary.  Those garish grins punctuating the Frankensteinian means of construction of the health care reform legislation ought to give us nightmares on top of the normal nightmares.

I do try to refrain from making fun of people over their appearance, but Pelosi and Rangel in that scene, in all seriousness, reminded me of nothing so much as one particular character in a legitimately funny Onion lampoon.

So guess which one.

Here's a still to facilitate comparison:

It's the same smile, I tell you.

Legalese disease

Robyn Blumner, St. Petersburg Times editorial columnist ordinaire, shot a few darts at the death penalty in her latest column.

The death penalty costs a lot to implement, a side issue to be sure but in these tough fiscal times, a consideration. Florida, for instance, spends about $51 million a year on its death penalty system or about $24 million for each execution. While another broke state, California, spends an estimated $137 million. The high cost is largely driven by the layers of additional court proceedings intended to make sure that due process has been afforded the accused and a guilty person is being executed.
Cost is actually the best argument against the U.S. version of the death penalty.  I suppose Blumner felt that she would appear lacking in humanitarian principle if she pressed her point in those terms, however.  She is correct in identifying the source of the high cost.

I can hear the cries of "who cares what it costs?" or "let's make it cheaper by cutting out all those extra legal steps." But what should concern capital punishment proponents is that the system, even with these expensive safeguards, gets it wrong. Executing the innocent is a distinct possibility.
It isn't news that our legal system is imperfect.  But if it isn't right to put an innocent to death, then neither is it right to put an innocent in prison for life.  Imperfection is an argument against all legal penalties.

Nine men in 2009 who had been convicted and sentenced to death were exonerated of their crimes and freed. The total now stands at 139 since 1973. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, those nine men served a combined 121 years between the time they were sentenced to death and their exonerations, which means that all that extra due process and all the system's delays that pandering politicians always caterwaul about were necessary to avert a tragedy.
Note that Blumner has constructed an argument over the course of these three paragraphs.  First, states spend a great deal on the death penalty in order to safeguard the results.  Second, despite those safeguards, imperfections in the system persist.  She then offers statistics supposedly in support of her argument.

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
--original authorship uncertain

Recent death sentence exonerations owe much to likewise recent advances in treatment of DNA evidence.  Rather than use those numbers as an argument against the death penalty generally, the advances point toward more reliable outcomes in future cases where the new techniques may be used.  In short, when we scrape a bit below the surface, Blumner's argument undercuts itself.

Back to Blumner:
And then there are the cases where a convict's innocence emerged too late. In a 2006 case concerning the death penalty law in Kansas, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote with his typical crowing arrogance that there has not been "a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops."

Scalia's misguided confidence is troubling considering the infamous Florida case of Frank Lee Smith whose death warrant was signed in 1989 for a rape and murder. It wasn't until after Smith died of cancer while awaiting execution that a DNA test in 2000 proved his innocence and implicated a convicted rapist and murderer.

Are we supposed to believe that if a man sentenced to death dies of cancer while in prison it contradicts Scalia's claim that if a person had been wrongly executed then it would have been widely publicized?

Again, Blumner's argument undercuts itself:  She refers to the Smith case as "infamous"--which we can fairly take to mean widely publicized--and yet it is not the type of case to which Scalia refers.  Blumner's first example only strengthens Scalia's point.

Her second example, the case of a man convicted of murder and executed in Texas, suits her needs far better.  Ironically, however, it was science that convicted the man in that case and science that would have freed him.  Can we credit science without blaming science?

Blumner concludes by making much of a change in the American Law Institute's stance on the death penalty.  Other commentators fail to see much significance in that.

The price argument against the death penalty is fairly strong, but we should always note that most of these arguments against the death penalty (including all of Blumner's) are not arguments against punishing a person by putting them to death per se, but arguments against the system we use to reach that end.

That ought to leave a open window for death penalty reform rather than abolition.

Bye, Haloscan

I wasn't happy with the recent appearance of the comment button for Haloscan comments.  As a result, I've dropped Haloscan in favor of the Blogger system.  Happily, the latter has been improved some over time.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Michael Bloomberg and financial sector pay

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has joined President Obama in PolitiFact's exalted "artful" class.  Let's dig in!

The issue:


The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


As usual, we go to the context as the first order of business.  Bloomberg's remarks occurred on "Meet the Press," so NBC had the transcript:
MR. GREGORY:  We're still talking about the, he economy more broadly, and I want to show something that Jeffrey Immelt--who is the CEO, of course, of General Electric, the parent of NBC--said about this, this era of business leadership on Wall Street that's coming to a close.  This is what he said. "We're at the end of a difficult generation of business leadership.  ... Tough-mindedness, a good trait, was replaced by meanness and greed, both terrible traits.  ...  Rewards became perverted.  The richest people made the most mistakes with the least accountability."
Mayor Bloomberg, has that era ended?  Is Wall Street a different place?

MAYOR BLOOMBERG:  I don't know that Wall Street's a different place, but what's happened in this country from an economic point of view is we went through another one of these cycles.  And we keep forgetting that we've been through this again and again and again.  We slowly build, we go to excess, it gets corrected overnight, we yell and scream, gnash our teeth, swear never again and then we start the same cycle.  The markets will work, and anybody that thinks they can hold back the markets is just making a mistake.  We live in a global world.  We don't control the whole world.  We cannot write regulation that's inconsistent with the rest of the world, because things will move around.  The governor talked about education being jobs.  Education is crime on our streets, education is our tax base.

MR. GREGORY:  Mm-hmm.

MAYOR BLOOMBERG:  You know, we have--everybody is bashing Wall Street.  That is one of the big revenue generators for New York and New York City.  That's how we pay our teachers, that's how we pay our cops, that's how we pay our firefighters.  And I've always thought, if the elected officials in Michigan bashed the automobile industry, or in California, I.T., or in Texas, oil, they'd be run out of town on a rail.  And yet, every day I pick up the paper and everybody, it's kind of hard to find anybody that's not saying--well, look, there are some excesses.  But overall, most of the people that work in finance make $70,000, $80,000 a year, they're hardworking, and we want those industries to be here and not overseas.
I do wish to credit PolitiFact writer Louis Jacobson with providing a fair amount of context in the story.  I included an exchange preceding the one Jacobson quoted because it reinforces the context in which Bloomberg's remarks were framed.  That is, at least in part, the assertion that financial sector jobs need not remain in New York if the regulatory climate is better elsewhere.

Now to Jacobson's treatment of Bloomberg's statement:
The part that caught our eye was that "people that work in finance make $70,000, $80,000 a year." Many of us have the impression from the media that people who work on Wall Street earn much more than that. So we talked to experts and looked at the data.
That seems fair.
The mayor's office referred us to the New York City Economic Development Corp., whose head is appointed by the mayor. A spokesman said that office came up with that figure by using the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey data. We consulted with the Census Bureau on retracing their steps and found that Bloomberg's comment on Meet the Press was indeed accurate.
Wow!  That was easy.  Jacobson spends the next six paragraphs explaining why Bloomberg was accurate, mentioning along the way that American Community Survey data show that the median income for workers in the financial/insurance sector in New York City is within the range cited by Bloomberg:  $78,451.

So Bloomberg gets a "True" ... or does he?
The other key question is whether the data sets the mayor used are justified or misleading. The census data (as well as BLS data) count anyone who works for a financial firm, regardless of what their job is. A receptionist, an IT staffer, a janitor -- as long as they're employed in-house by a financial services firm, they get mixed in with the high-rollers that author Tom Wolfe called the Masters of the Universe. The receptionists and janitors tend to decrease both the median and average earnings figures for the industry.
Was Tom Wolfe interviewed for this story?  Where did that come from?

PolitiFact often considers the "underlying argument" with respect to statements it rates.  It is certainly fair to examine any underlying argument presented by Bloomberg in his televised comments.  In context, Bloomberg allowed that excesses occurred and probably continued to occur on Wall Street, but cautioned that harsh regulation might make the financial sector and the associated jobs go away.  The threat of losing those middle class jobs, I think, seemed to most likely represent Bloomberg's underlying argument.

How does Jacobson see it?
Bloomberg's artful wording -- "Most of the people that work in finance make $70,000, $80,000 a year" -- was broad enough to include lower-paid employees. And because of that, it is backed up by a credible federal statistic. But we believe a reasonable person hearing his comment would think he was saying that professionals such as bond traders and brokers earn $70,000 to $80,000 per year. So while he may be technically accurate, we find his statement misleading.
Even in the context of the potential loss of financial sector businesses a "reasonable" person might think Bloomberg was talking about professionals only?  What kind of reasonable person ignores the context like that?

I can only imagine that Jacobson considered Bloomberg's statement out of context, and even then the PolitiFact writer concedes that Bloomberg's wording "was broad enough to include lower-paid employees."
And what of "But overall," and "we want those industries to be here and not overseas"?  "Overall" and "those industries" provide no clue to the "reasonable person" that Bloomberg wasn't referring exclusively to professionals?

Once again, I am amazed at PolitiFact.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Bill Adair:  F

Thursday, January 07, 2010

E. J. Dionne tries to reconcile numbers in health care bill

Bear in mind that the CBO figures showing a net deficit reduction for our most recent version of the health care bill include the caveat that the Medicare savings may not materialize.  Dionne was answering a question posed to him on the Hugh Hewitt Show, and I rely on Hewitt's transcript:
"Well, some of it, what they’re talking about is moving away from fee for service medicine. And they’re talking about a lot of different ways of charging people for medicine that encourage activities by doctors that deliver care more efficiently. The truth is we are shifting money that’s paid into the health care system one way, and paying it back into the health care system another way. And so I am persuaded that you are not going to see seniors, once this thing actually takes effect in 2014, or 2013, if they back it up a little bit, I don’t think you are going to see seniors wildly unhappy. And I think you’re going to see a lot of seniors very happy as they close the donut hole on the prescription drug benefit. So again, I think some of the polling among seniors against the bill reflects the fact that this generation of seniors is very Republican compared to the earlier, the earlier New Deal generation of seniors. So I think that when you’re talking politically, a lot of seniors are going to say the bill is bad, and they’re going to vote Republican. But guess what? Seniors voted for John McCain over Barack Obama. I think that politically, what’s going to be interesting is the behavior probably 10-15% of seniors who are persuadable by your side of this or by the other side of this."
One comment from Dionne reminds me of a criticism I read some days ago.  That critic charged the bill with budgetary sleight of hand for counting Medicare savings as part of the overall savings, if I remember correctly, in spite of the fact that the money is spent regardless.  Dionne seems to play up that bug as a feature.  But how can seniors have any assurance that the saved monies will go toward care for the Medicare population?  I detect no such assurance.

The later satisfaction Dionne expects comes, I believe, from the satisfaction folks usually have with a service they do not use, combined with the satisfaction of at least a few who actually use the service.

Hewitt has a good number of transcripts dealing with the health care issue, many featuring the words of those who favor the legislation.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Cheney, war on terrorists, and the reluctant Obama

This item fell in my lap not long after I wrote how PolitiFact's increased emphasis on rating punditry tended to pull PolitiFact into the punditry arena from its supposed location in objective journalism.  This new item falls right in line with that analysis, while also underscoring criticisms collected in my review of PolitiFact's 2009.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Bill Adair:  writer, researcher
Amy Hollyfield:  editor


Take another look at the deck portion of the PolitiFact story, reproduced above:  "President Obama 'doesn't ... want to admit we're at war.'"  Compare that with the subsequent paraphrase:  "Cheney says Obama won't admit the U.S. at war against terrorists."

Red flags, anyone?  If the baseball announcer says "Ryan didn't want to throw a hanging curve, there" does the fact that Ryan threw a hanging curveball prove that Ryan wanted to throw a hanging curveball?  Taking away the "want" changes the argument.

With red flags now waving in the breeze, let us turn to Bill Adair's story:
In his latest attack on President Barack Obama, former Vice President Dick Cheney seized on the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner to suggest that Obama is weak on terrorism.
Forgiving Adair's flirtation with opinion journalism ("latest attack," "seized"), I think Adair has nicely captured Cheney's underlying argument.  Take careful note, because this is the last you'll see of the underlying argument from Adair.

Adair goes on to quote Cheney's full statement as presented by Politico:
"As I’ve watched the events of the last few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if we bring the mastermind of Sept. 11 to New York, give him a lawyer and trial in civilian court, we won’t be at war.

“He seems to think if he closes Guantanamo and releases the hard-core Al Qaeda-trained terrorists still there, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if he gets rid of the words, ‘war on terror,’ we won’t be at war. But we are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren’t, it makes us less safe. Why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war? It doesn’t fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn’t fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency — social transformation — the restructuring of American society. President Obama’s first object and his highest responsibility must be to defend us against an enemy that knows we are at war."

And back to Adair:
Cheney's comments echo a frequent criticism by conservatives that President Obama does not use the phrase "war on terror." We rated that True when it was made by talk show host Sean Hannity in November 2009. We noted in our ruling that Obama had said he didn't use the more general phrase "war on terror" because he viewed the conflict as a war against "some terrorist organizations."

With his statement to Politico, Cheney is going farther than Hannity did, directly alleging that Obama will not "admit we're at war."
In a few short paragraphs, Adair has reproduced the flawed logic that appeared in the deck of the story.  Adair's summary is patently unfair to Cheney.  Cheney referred directly to a number of features of Obama's response to terrorism, and those features obviously represented the ways in which Obama did not want to acknowledge the state of war.  Supposing that Cheney referred literally to the mention of a state of war represents third rate straw man creation.

Astoundingly, we ended up with this straw man despite the fact that Adair adroitly identified Cheney's true argument in his first paragraph.

Adair proceeds to rattle off a few useless examples of Obama referring to a state of war with terrorists before reaching his concluding paragraph:
Cheney has offered lots of criticism of Obama in the past year (of the claims we've rated, Cheney has earned a True and a Mostly True). His remarks here go beyond opinion because he repeatedly says that Obama won't acknowledge that the United States is at war. But even a cursory examination of Obama's statements shows this one is preposterous. Obama has often said the United States is at war against terrorist organizations -- and has ordered a massive increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan to fight that war. So Cheney's comment isn't just False, it's ridiculously so. Pants on Fire!
With all due respect to Adair, who is the main driving force behind PolitiFact, the ridiculous aspect of this story is his avoidance of Cheney's underlying argument in favor of the focus on a highly uncharitable and highly improbable understanding of Cheney's remarks.

Cheney provided a concrete set of examples in support of his criticism of Obama.  Those examples were the context of his remark about pretending we are not at war.  By ignoring that context, Adair committed a big journalistic no-no:  He took a quotation way out of context.

The grades:

Bill Adair: F
Amy Hollyfield:  F


How does Adair direct PolitiFact into punditry with this item?

By accurately identifying Cheney's underlying argument in the first paragraph in conjunction with a "Pants On Fire" ruling and the associated graphic, Adair succeeded in creating the impression that the true argument was discredited instead of the mere destruction of Adair's straw man.

This is among the worst sorts of things to run under the banner of objective journalism.  Adair might as well have appeared on the Hannity Show and screamed "Cheney doesn't know what he's talking about!" above the din.

But at least if he had done it during an opinion segment nobody would mistake it for objective journalism.

Incriminating self-disclosure

PolitiFact's year-end/New Year stories are providing me rich amusement.

After tipping their editorially opinionated hand by picking a set of biggest lies of the year for which readers might vote, the PolitiFact crew followed up with "Five Surprising 'True' ratings" (sic) (don't ask me what capitalization rules they're applying).
With our Lie of the Year, we focused on the biggest falsehoods of 2009. But we also want to highlight our findings at the other end of the Truth-O-Meter, the many items we determined were True. We're a skeptical bunch here at PolitiFact, so we chose five True ratings that surprised us.
If admitting what stories surprised the staff fails to provide a window into their ideological topography then perhaps nothing will.

What could possibly surprise PolitiFact's scientifically minded group of media professionals?
1.) Preventive care does not save the government money. (David Brooks, Aug. 14, in an interview on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer)
It's hard to imagine why that would be surprising, once one gets past the very surface fact that for individual cases a disease avoided saves the money used to treat that disease.  Preventive care costs time and money, and where the disease is not present most types of preventive care costs end up being a total waste of money, in medical terms.

It's a common view among universal coverage advocates that preventive care saves money, of course.  More than a coincidence?
2.) To give the economic stimulus plan some perspective, "if you started the day Jesus Christ was born and spent $1 million every day since then, you still wouldn’t have spent $1 trillion." (Mitch McConnell, Feb. 1, in appearance on CBS' Face the Nation)
The math on this is fairly simple.  Even taking the prevalence of mathematically-challenged journalists into account, my first thought was that it was hard for PolitiFact to believe simply because McConnell's statement implied that Jesus was a real person.
3.) "Switzerland and the Netherlands . . . cover all their citizens using private insurers, and they do so for much less cost." (Matt Miller, Sept. 8, in a Washington Post op-ed)
It's amazing how many liberals think that universal coverage is the same thing as single-payer coverage.  Did the PolitiFact staff really know so little about the variety of methods used to achieve universal coverage in Europe?  Or were they simply surprised that private insurance over there could operate "for much less cost"?  The latter would seem to indicate a dim view of the efficiencies of capitalism.
4.) "In some states, it is still legal to deny a woman coverage because she's been the victim of domestic violence." (Michelle Obama, Sept. 18, in a speech)
That one seems easy to understand in one sense.  If we're talking about insurance coverage (I haven't peeked), certain conditions could establish a case where the policyholder deliberately forces a claim on the insurer.  Somewhat parallel to deliberately wrecking a car and expecting the insurance company to give you a new one.

After peeking, the issue is more clear.  And PolitiFact's surprise is less surprising from the liberal point of view.

Insurance companies in some states may legally refuse to issue policies to those with a history of domestic violence victimhood.   In a free market, that makes sense.  Insurance companies should be expected to be able to accept customers based on risk.  People from abusive relationships tend to stay in abusive relationships.  The notion that an insurance company should be forced by law to ignore risk is, I think, characteristically liberal.  But I do think that surprise is warranted regarding the degree to which some states have refrained from market interference--even for a conservative.
5.) Obama has admitted a cap-and-trade plan would cause electricity bills to "skyrocket." (Sarah Palin, Nov. 17, in her book Going Rogue)
I just do not see the warrant for surprise*.  We get our energy primarily from fossil fuels of the type that cap-and-trade would tax.  The other types of energy cost more, at least for the foreseeable future.  It's only pollyanna leftists who do not see the implications of cap-and-trade, I thought.

Three out of these five were prefigured in the conservative portion of the blogosphere.  In other words, keeping abreast of conservative blogs might well have kept most of these from surprising left-leaning reporters.

PolitiFact has obligingly provided some of the best evidence to date of a clear liberal bias.

The matter of the asterisk

* My recollection suggested that the "skyrocket" fact check predated the "Going Rogue" set of fact-checks.  PolitiFact checked Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) back during the summer on his quotation of Obama to the effect that energy bills would "necessarily skyrocket."

If PolitiFact was surprised, the surprise should have come near the point where Pence was ruled "True" on his "skyrocket" claim rather than on account of the subsequent and nearly identical claim from Sarah Palin.


I've presented my observation to PolitiFact at the PolitiFact FaceBook page.

(click to enlarge)

Added "Piquing PolitiFact" tag.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Shermer versus Koukl on the Hugh Hewitt Show (Updated)

This week on Hugh Hewitt's radio program, Hewitt continued his "Great God Debate" series by matching skeptic Michael Shermer against Greg Koukl.

Though I heard only portions of the program, I came away greatly impressed with Koukl.  He displayed an excellent command of the moral argument and great rhetorical skill in pressing the argument against Shermer's defense.

As for Shermer, he seems like a genuinely nice guy who happens to bring a poor set of arguments to the table.  His arguments are as bad as Christopher Hitchens' in terms of logic, and Shermer lacks the rhetorical skill that frequently allows Hitchens to produce an effective debate performance despite his bankrupt basis for argument.

Hewitt has a transcript posted, but unfortunately it is mostly worthless until the formatting is changed.  I'll pull out some interesting bits to illustrate the portion of the argument I found riveting.

Koukl frames the key issue as he sees it:
Actually, the big question here, Hugh, is whether it’s possible to be good without God. Now I’m not talking about whether it’s possible to be good without a belief in God. I certainly think that’s possible, but be good without God. And the answer to that question hinges entirely on precisely what you mean by good. And so I was going to give an illustration. So a man drags a young girl into the alley, he sexually abuses her, strangles here, and tosses her into the dustbin. Is that act wrong? Now I think everybody listening is going to admit it is wrong. But here is the real question. What do we mean when we say that that act of rape and abuse and murder is wrong? Are we describing the action itself, the object? Are we saying that the object, the rape, the murder, has a quality of being wrong, and therefore, wherever that rape goes, the wrongness follows it, just like your height, 6’ 2”, or whatever it is, is an objective quality of you. Wherever you go, your height follows you in the same way. Does the wrongness follow the rape? Well, if it’s a quality of the rape, if it’s an objective quality of the rape, then it does. And it doesn’t matter what people think about it, or what cultures decides, or what your evolutionary conditioning is. The rape is still wrong. The other alternative is that you’re not talking about the rape. You’re talking about yourself.
What I heard of Shermer's attempts to deal with this issue were practically amazing in the degree to which they failed to supply a real answer.

Shermer, addressing whether morality is objective or relative:
"Well, I don’t think it’s quite so black and white. That is to say I think there are provisional moral truths that exist whether there’s a God or not. In other words, it’s wrong, morally, absolutely morally wrong to rape and murder. And that would be true whether there was a God or not."
Shermer went on to sketch something akin to the Euthyphro dilemma, making it appear that he advocates a moral realism that requires no divine foundation.  Shermer continued:
I think it really exists, a real, moral standard like that. Why? Well, because first, you could ask the person who is being affected, we should always ask the moral recipient of the act, how do you feel about being raped or murdered or stolen from or lied to. And the moral actor will tell you, it doesn’t matter whether, if I could use a current example, I haven’t any idea if Tiger Woods and his wife are religious or not. But you can just ask his wife whether it was morally right or wrong, and she’ll tell you.
Koukl responded perfectly, including the following:
"What I’m trying to do is to be able to answer the question that came up initially, is God necessary for morality, which Michael denies. It’s to say well, what is it that morality, that we’re trying to describe? It is either objective, and therefore an immaterial obligation that applies to certain behaviors, or it is subjective. The things that Michael described were variously subjective, evolutionary elements, subjective cultural elements, but then he affirmed that we all have good and evil in our nature, or an awareness of that. I agree with that entirely. We all are aware of those things. That’s why even if we don’t believe in God, we can still know morality and follow it. The question is what accounts for real, genuine objective morality?"
Thus Koukl put it back in Shermer's lap to coherently describe what type of objective morality would exist minus a god (such as God), noting that through this point in the debate Shermer had described it in terms indistinguishable from subjective/relativistic morality.

Shermer seemed incapable of addressing the point with his response:
I’m not arguing for cultural evolution. I’m actually arguing as part of our, what you described as materialistic, natural selection, Darwinian evolution, that it’s not enough to just pretend or fake being a good group member. You actually have to believe it, feel it, and live it. So what I’m arguing is that natural selected certain moral sentiments, as Adam Smith called them, moral feelings, an actual empathy, Adam Smith talked about, we actually empathize with somebody else, we can put ourselves into their shoes and feel their pain, I’m arguing that’s very real.
I earlier encountered a response similar to Shermer's over at the Center For Inquiry discussion board.  Apparently some skeptics think that if subjective impressions are real then it therefore follows that morality based on those subjective impressions somehow adds up to moral realism (objective existence of moral precepts themselves).   That seems ridiculous on its face, and a simple reductio ad absurdum follows:

If Fred thinks that it is wrong for Tom to do X at time t while at the same time Tom thinks that it is right for Tom to do X at time t, then we have a case in which Fred and Tom have apparently established "real" moral precepts that directly contradict one another.

Koukl adopts a slower process to bring out the same point:
"Regardless of what our sentiments happen to be regarding moral actions, we can feel good or feel bad or whatever, the problem is that morality is prescriptive, not merely descriptive. That is it tells us not just what we did, but what we ought to have done in the past, and what we ought to do in the future. That is not something that any Darwinian mechanism can describe, because nothing about my biology can inveigh upon me to act a certain way for moral reasons in the future. It doesn’t tell me why I should be good tomorrow."
In other words, the "is" of "Fred thinks that it is wrong for Tom to do X at time t" does not make it that case that Tom ought not do X at time t any more than Tom's opposite belief entails the converse moral precept.  Put simply, Shermer has come upon the is/ought divide (the problem of deriving an "ought" from an "is") without providing reasonable evidence that he has solved the problem.

Shermer surely founders with all of his subsequent attempts to solve the problem.  Indeed, it remained difficult to tell whether he even perceived it as a problem.
HH: Michael Shermer, when we went to break, Greg had made the argument that the Darwinian model simply cannot explain immaterial concepts like morality, that there’s just no way you can rearrange the molecules to get there. You’re saying well, yes you can.

MS: Yeah, I think so, because if we think of morality as another suite of emotions that are involved with other people’s behaviors, the consequences of our actions, how we feel about them, how people feel about us when we do these things, that’s as every bit as important a biological part of our nature as anything else we talk about.
See what I mean?

I would encourage all interested parties to read the whole conversation, assuming that Generalissimo Duane gets around to properly formatting the text.

Props to Koukl for an excellent debate performance.  If Koukl is as good when treating other major issues in the God argument then I could easily place him up there with Dinesh D'Souza for effectively engaging nonbelievers in debate.


Until Generalissimo gets around to properly formatting the debate transcript, Wintery Knight has created a legible version at the blog of the same name.